VIAF 2014

In a class of their own … the Martinů supreme masters of their art

It keeps escalating … the standard I mean, not the heat (although that seems to be taking the hint!) Performances have been staggeringly high-powered and the yearly presence of the Martinů sealed the stamp on the ever-growing reputation and high profile that our Festival enjoys beyond the shores of our tiny islands.

The Martinů came back to Gozo, as I advised a few hours ago, and they came back with a bang not with a whimper (to borrow a phrase from T.S. Eliot). Always supremely elegant, refined, accomplished, it is a master class in musicianship. A big audience once again turned up to enjoy a performance that reached more peaks as it progressed!

In the splendid environs of St George’s Basilica, with its equally magnificent acoustics, the concert started with Beethoven first-ever Quartet in F Major op. 18.

Beethoven’s themes are not merely invented and then shaped into compositions with a masterly hand; their constructive possibilities are inherent. Not every musical idea lends itself to symphonic elaboration provided sufficient skill is brought to bear on it; the result may be quite artistic but it may fail to be a faultless masterpiece unless the germs of the whole are contained in the microcosm. Beethoven’s themes, even those miniature ones manifest in his early quartets, are the most concentrated expression, the compressed power of all that which seems to the listener derived from it. Yet, only in their elaboration is their nature revealed and this is where, amongst other instance, Beethoven towers over his contemporaries for Beethoven’s mind, his creative thought is symphonic even when writing chamber works such as quartets. It took the Martinů no time at all to settle down and plunge into a piece that has all the hallmarks of eighteenth-century rationality, control and formal cohesion. Without in any way detracting from Classical restraint, there was an adequate dose of emotional power trembling beneath a shimmering surface, and nowhere was this more evident than in the slow movement. There is always something remarkably sublime with a Beethoven work, and this was in evidence in the interpretation that this wonderful Quartet gave this piece.

I have always had a yearning to listen to Schubert’s memorable String Quartet in D minor D810 (Death and the Maiden.) Particularly in the genre of the String Quartet, as well as in the Sonata, Schubert is mentally confronted by Beethoven – not an easy contender, and an unenviable task to accomplish with any merit. Yet, there is one area in which Schubert excels that Beethoven does not seem to have had a natural disposition for – the singing voice. Essentially, Schubert’s architectonic power centres on his thorough understanding of the singing ability of the instrument he is writing for. No matter what medium Schubert writes for, he always sings, and song remains the mainstay of all his musical output. This was one massive work that flowed seamlessly from one movement to another, with a rapport between the musicians that was almost tangible yet framed in an intellectual understanding of the work.

The work started appropriately aggressive, with full-throated gestures that establish both the thematic and rhythmic structure of the first movement. Schubert makes use of one of his signature rhythmic devices, a quarter note followed by triplet eighths. The second theme came across sweetly lyrical, joyful and upbeat, full of life and energy. The movement ended breathlessly but sweetly. Throughout, the discerning listener experienced a real polyphonic spirit, that of the free ensemble polyphony of the Viennese school. The harmonic element also unquestionably acquired the importance we associate with romantic music, and there was a wide exploitation of chromaticism. Yet, with all his overflow of melodic wealth, the often apparent absence of a guiding hand and of an imperative will, everything seemed naturally coherent and simple. This unity is not restricted to the individual movements, although it is apparent in each, but it encompassed the entire composition.

The second movement, a fourteen-minute Andante con moto, introduced the ‘Death’ theme, which corresponds to the opening piano introduction of ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen.’ Five variations on the theme follow, all of which vary only slightly from the original, as if Death is insistent, not swayed or deterred. This particularly lovely movement was transmitted to a spellbound audience in its fine nuance, wonderful sonority and deep passion. A thoroughly sensitive performance which never, however, became sentimentalized.

The third movement, a Scherzo served as prologue to the driving, almost demonic finale. It is rhythmically challenging, and featured unexpected accents and cadences. In the final movement, Schubert applies his customary momentum and drive to first establish and then build an inexorable rush. The figure of a dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth note is used throughout as the driving force, though it is frequently interrupted. In the end, Death is relentless, and the movement swirls to a massive but abrupt conclusion. The Martinů sailed through the work with confidence, respect for the beauty of the music and complete mastery.

Sustained and sincere applause greeted the finale chord. As I remember saying last year when Martinů performed for us, let’s have more of the same! Beauty will save the world (to quote another great literary figure, this time Dostoevsky!!)